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‘Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation’, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman ***

I had not heard of Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation before spotting it in my local Fopp store.   I felt as though this collection of essays, which all revolve around the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestine, was worthy of an extended review.  Whilst I knew quite a bit about the situation and its history before picking the book up, I am always eager to learn, and hoped that it would fill in the gaps which I was certain I had. 9780008229191

Edited by husband and wife team Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who also contribute an essay each, Kingdom of Olives and Ash brings together twenty-six pieces by a variety of celebrated authors, most of them novelists, from all over the world.  Each was offered a trip to the occupied zone, and was invited to write about whatever it was that struck them the most on their travels.  Their work, viewed both separately and collectively, ‘shows the human cost of fifty years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.’  These ‘perceptive and poignant essays’, says the book’s blurb, ‘offer unique insight into the narratives behind the litany of grim destruction broadcast nightly on the news, as well as a deeper understanding of the conflict as experienced by the people who live in the occupied territories.’

Chabon and Waldman are frank in their introduction.  They write: ‘We didn’t want to edit this book.  We didn’t want to write, or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.  Our reluctance to engage with the issue was so acute that for nearly a quarter of a century we didn’t even visit the place [Jerusalem] where Ayelet was born.’  1992, they go on to discuss, was the first time in which they visited Israel together.  This was a ‘time of optimism, new initiatives, relative tranquility.’

Despite enjoying their trip, and believing that they would often return, they did not get the opportunity to do so for over twenty years.  As violence escalated following their visit, they remark: ‘Horrified and bewildered by the blur of violence and destruction, of reprisal and counter-reprisal and counter-counter-reprisal, put off by the dehumanizing rhetoric prevalent on both sides, we did what so many others in the ambivalent middle have done: we averted our gaze.  We opted out of the debate, and stayed away from the country.’  Following an invitation to a writers’ festival, Ayelet returned to Israel by herself in 2014, where she also visited Hebron and Tel Aviv: ‘The city sparkles, it hums.  And it averts its gaze.  One would never know, on the streets of Tel Aviv, that an hour’s drive away, millions of people are living and dying under oppressive military rule.’

As the project for Kingdom of Olives and Ash began to take shape, the editors speak of how they selected a vast array of contributors for the volume, in order to make the collection as far-reaching as was possible.  The core idea was this: ‘Conscious of the imminence of June 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, we put the word out – to writers on every continent except Antarctica, of all ages and eight mother tongues.  Writers who identified as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu, and writers of no religious affiliation at all.  Some had already made clear and public their political feelings on the subject of Palestine-Israel, but most had not, and many acknowledged from the outset that they had never really given the subject more than a glancing consideration.’

I had heard of a lot of the authors collected here, and was familiar with some of their work.  I was particularly excited to read essays by Anita Desai, Eimear McBride, and Geraldine Brooks, all writers whose novels I admire.  There were a few writers who were new to me, too.  Some of these authors were invited to stay at houses in Palestinian refugee camps and villages, and some spoke to civilians about their experiences.  Others explored cities, some tried to cross the many checkpoints strewn over a small area, and still others interviewed those working in factories or on archaeological sites.  There are many tragic stories told here, as one might expect given the circumstances.  The contributors variously meet advocates for peace and change, artisans cultivating ancient practices (soap making, for instance), students, bereaved parents, non-conformists, and taxi drivers who have to navigate the checkpoints many times each day.

I enjoyed and engaged with several of the essays in Kingdom of Olives and Ash, but others did not capture my attention in the same way.  The pieces which I particularly enjoyed tended to be written by the authors which I wasn’t already overly familiar with.  Jacqueline Woodson’s essay, ‘One’s Own People’, in which she contrasts her privileged, shielded life in New York with those she sees lived in occupied territory, was particularly striking.  She writes: ‘I knew the Palestine-Israel of newspaper articles and television journalism.  This Palestine-Israel was as foreign to me as Yemen, a place somewhere out there where people who had no connection to me fought among themselves – and killed others.  People who were not 100 percent people…  how could they be?  They were outside my very comfortable America.  Outside anything I could – or needed to – imagine.’  I also very much enjoyed Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen’s ‘Occupied Words’, which considers the language which we use: ‘And when our language is occupied, attitudes change too, and sometimes the distance from attitude to action is short.  The front lines move quicker than the thought.  We can’t keep up.’

Of course, there are elements of interest in each and every essay here, but I found some of the writing styles a little awkward in their choice of prose, overly and unnecessarily sensationalised, or not to my taste.  I found the essays which focus on one individual, or one family, particularly intriguing and accessible.  Others, like Madeleine Thien’s, are overly fact-heavy, and took far longer to read and consider.

Kingdom of Olives and Ash is certainly not an easy read, but it is a challenging and important one.  A lot has been explored here.  I had intended to read the book all in one go, but it proved far better to read and consider one or two essays each day over an extended period.  Much of the information here needed time to settle.  I found this varied collection a little uneven at times, but overarchingly, the pieces are interesting and informative, and form rather an essential whole.

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‘Negroland: A Memoir’ by Margo Jefferson ***

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography following its publication in 2015.  In this, her second book, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson has set out to explore the idea of “Negroland”, which she defines as ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. The book’s blurb calls Negroland ‘at once incendiary and icy, celebratory and elegiac – here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, class and American culture old through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education.’

9781783783021Jefferson sees herself as a ‘chronicler’ of “Negroland”, ‘a participant – observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.’  Of her choice to invent the term “Negroland”, she writes: ‘I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.  A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts.  A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates.’  She later comments: ‘”Negro” is the magic word, the spell.  The small grow large, the mundane turns exceptional, and the individual becomes cosmic.’

In his review, Hilton Als writes: ‘Jefferson has lived and worked like the great reporter she is, traversing a little-known or -understood landscape peopled by blacks and whites, dreamers and naysayers, the privileged and the strivers who make up the mosaic known as America.’  Aminatta Forna comments: ‘It would be too easy to call Negroland a groundbreaking work and yet this is exactly what it is.  In her descriptions of a life lived on the nexus of race and class Margo Jefferson tells a tale of how people create, defy and survive systems of exclusion and inclusion, of the human toll that must be exacted.’  Eula Biss believes that Negroland provides ‘… the record of a powerful mind grappling with all the trouble of being awake.’

Jefferson herself grew up in a wealthy family in Chicago, to a doctor father and well-educated, ‘fashionable socialite’ mother, who opted to stay at home and look after her two daughters.  She is concerned throughout about the way in which others perceived her upbringing and her family’s societal position.  She comments: ‘Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it.  Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers.’

Negroland was a real step away for me from the usual non-fiction which I consume.  I have read rather a few memoirs of late which have been set in the United States, but these have dealt almost exclusively with the stark realities of poverty and racism, and the disadvantages which the lower classes often have.  I found it fascinating, therefore, to be given a completely different view of American society, of the upper-class black community who lived in wealthy parts of Chicago.

Jefferson begins her memoir by discussing the perils and contradictions which one must face when writing about oneself: ‘I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself.  You bask in your own innocence.  You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles…  So let me turn back, subdue my individual self, and enter history.’  She goes on to address elements of black history specific to the United States, and moves on to write about racial stereotyping, general ignorance, media portrayals, and beauty regimens, amongst other themes.

Negroland is a memoir both personal and universal to those of the author’s class and race.  Jefferson sets her own memories, largely of childhood and her years as a young adult, against the wider political and social landscape of America at its ‘crucial historical moments – the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of post-racial America’.  When she writes about historical occurrences, she does so using the present-tense.  This is something which I had not seen in a memoir before; there is usually such a distinction between past and present.

When Jefferson grew up, during a highly tumultuous period for black people in the United States, she reflects that children in “Negroland” ‘were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.’  She justifies the choices which she makes in this memoir not to reflect too much upon the present day, and instead focus upon the past, by writing: ‘… I belong to an earlier generation, that of the fifties and sixties: it’s us and our predecessors I want to write of.  Most whites knew little about us; only a few cared to know…  We were taught that we were better than the whites who looked down on us – that we were better than most whites, period.  But that this would rarely if ever be acknowledged by white people, with all their entitlement.  Not the entitlement a government provides, but the kind history bestows.  This is your birthright, says history.’

What I found fascinating, and incredibly sad, was the discussion about other black people Jefferson’s family knew, who felt more comfortable hiding themselves within society by posing as white people: ‘So many in my parents’ world had relatives who’d spent their adult lives as white people of some kind.  Avocational passing was lighthearted.  Shopping at whites-only stores, getting deferential service at whites-only restaurants.  You came home snickering…’.  Also chilling is the space which Jefferson gives to discussing the prevalence of suicide attempts amongst black youths of her generation, and her revelation of her own contemplations of suicide.

Jefferson’s writing is elegant, and certainly has a journalistic flair to it.  She puts across such interesting perspectives, some of which I had never considered before.  Jefferson’s authorial voice is strong, and after I got used to the fragmented style which some of her sentences hold, I found myself pulled in.  At first, Negroland does not take the form of a linear narrative – rather, it is more playful – but the later sections which deal with elements of the author’s schooling have been presented chronologically.  The oft-broken structure has connecting themes within it, and the whole does come together relatively well.  Regardless that there is so much of importance within the book, I did not quite connect with it in the way that I’d hoped.  I felt as though there was a level of detachment within the book, due largely to the creativity which Jefferson employs.

So much has been considered in Negroland, and there is a lot for the reader to mull over long after the final page has been read.  I shall end this review with a most poignant question in Jefferson’s book: ‘What manner of man and woman are we?  Wherever we go we disrupt order.’

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Three Reviews: Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Jolly, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado ** 9781781259535
I had been so looking forward to the lauded debut short story collection of Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties.  Unfortunately, I found that it fell far short of my expectations.  Whilst the stories here are well written, they all feel relatively similar, as there is such a focus upon sex within them.  Some of the tales did pull me in but had unsatisfactory endings; others did not really hold any appeal for me.

The style of prose here is varied.  I ended up skipping the second half of ‘Law and Order, SUV’, as I did not enjoy the very fragmented style of it. My favourite in the collection was by the far the first story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, which was quite beguiling.  On the whole, I felt as though the stories went on for too long, and were thus unsatisfying in consequence.

There is no real consistency to the collection, and the lack of realism in some of the stories really threw me off. Since I finished reading Her Body and Other Parties, I have found that very few of the storylines have actually stuck with me, and I cannot remember anything that happens in a few of them.  Whilst there are some interesting ideas at play here, as a collection, it felt confused and a little unfinished.

 

9781783525492Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly ***
I adored Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, and was keen to try some of her fiction.  Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was the only work which I could source through my library, and it intrigued me very much.  In this work of historical fiction, which is told entirely in free verse, Jolly introduces us to the elderly maidservant Mary Ann Sate, who is working at the turn of the nineteenth century.  It is described as a ‘fictional found memoir’, and I found the approach which Jolly took to her story and protagonist most interesting.

I enjoyed Jolly’s writing; it feels both modern and old-fashioned, and reminded me somewhat of Nell Leyshon’s impactful novella The Colour of Milk.  Gorgeous, and often quite startling imagery, is produced throughout, and the traditional approach of chapters within the structure does help to make the 600-page story a little more accessible.  The style did take a little while to get into, as no punctuation whatsoever has been used, and there is little which denotes the changing of scene, speaker, or ideas.  Jolly has also included a lot of colloquialisms, which help Mary Ann’s voice to come across as authentic.  I very quickly got a feel for her, her life, and the time in which she was living. In some ways, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is a remarkable piece of fiction.

Whilst being very well researched, and having a strong historical foundation, there was a real drawback for me with Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile.  It was rather too long, and I felt as though the repetition which exists throughout made the story lose a lot of its impact.  Jolly has certainly demonstrated that she is a very talented and versatile writer, and she definitely maintained the narrative voice well.  Had it been shorter and more succinct, I more than likely would have given it a 4-star rating.

 

Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ***
I very much enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction, which I find poignant and 9780008241032moving.  Of late, she has published two pamphlets, I suppose one could call them, which take feminism as their central focus.  I was rather disappointed with We Should All Be Feminists, which on one level provides a very good introduction to the topic, but does not really add any depth to its explorations.  I thought that, due to liking her novels and short stories so much, I would still go on to pick up Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manigesto in Fifteen Suggestions.  In fact, this was the first audiobook which I chose to listen to with a free Scribd trial; I have since cancelled this, as I enjoy reading at my own pace.

Dear Ijeawele is adapted from a letter which Ngozi Adichie wrote to one of her friends in response to the question of how she could raise her new baby daughter to be a feminist.  In some respects, this was a powerful and insightful work, which gave a lot of good advice on raising a daughter, and tips for enabling her to see the world through measured, fair eyes.  Ngozi Adichie definitely mentions some elements which are worth further thought; for instance, the prevalence of gendered baby clothing, and the continued use of the frankly antiquated societal expectations of ‘blue for a boy’ and ‘pink for a girl’.  I liked the way in which the author had set out this book, in fifteen ‘suggestions’; it was, in this way, like a manifesto, but rather a simplistic one in many ways.

I must admit that I found quite a lot of Dear Ijeawele rather patronising.  It may have come across this way due to the audiobook narrator I listened to, but a lot of what Ngozi Adichie points out feels obvious, and I did not think any of these things particularly needed to be stated.  Her suggestion about teaching her friend’s child to read a lot, for example, felt like a generalisation, and one which the majority of parents of certain means would encourage, regardless of whether they want to raise their child to be a feminist or not.  I failed to connect with the book that much, and felt as though it was a little old-fashioned, and quite underwhelming.

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Powell’s Picks of the Month 2019

Definitely the bookshop which I am most looking forward to visiting at some point, Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon, has a wealth of wondrous website content.  They include frequent lists of books recommended by their booksellers, and have also collated their Picks of the Month for 2019 onto one handy page (see here).  I have scrolled through this list on many occasions, and thought it a worthwhile exercise to pick ten books from it which I am very much looking forward to reading.

 

1. The Swallows by Lisa Lutz 9781984818232
When Alexandra Witt joins the faculty at Stonebridge Academy, she’s hoping to put a painful past behind her. Then one of her creative writing assignments generates some disturbing responses from students. Before long, Alex is immersed in an investigation of the students atop the school’s social hierarchy — and their connection to something called the Darkroom. She soon inspires the girls who’ve started to question the school’s “boys will be boys” attitude and incites a resistance. But just as the movement is gaining momentum, Alex attracts the attention of an unknown enemy who knows a little too much about her — and what brought her to Stonebridge in the first place.  Meanwhile, Gemma, a defiant senior, has been plotting her attack for years, waiting for the right moment. Shy loner Norman hates his role in the Darkroom, but can’t find the courage to fight back until he makes an unlikely alliance. And then there’s Finn Ford, an English teacher with a shady reputation who keeps one eye on his literary ambitions and one on Ms. Witt. As the school’s secrets begin to trickle out, a boys-versus-girls skirmish turns into an all-out war, with deeply personal — and potentially fatal — consequences for everyone involved.  Lisa Lutz’s blistering, timely tale of revenge and disruption shows us what can happen when silence wins out over decency for too long — and why the scariest threat of all might be the idea that sooner or later, girls will be girls.’

 

97805255413322. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
‘In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind…  A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?’

 

3. Heads of the Coloured People by Nafissa Thompson Spires 9781501168000
‘Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous — from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide — while others are devastatingly poignant — a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.   Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body.’

 

97800628628534. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
From the day she is discovered unconscious in a New England cemetery at the turn of the twentieth century — nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person — Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone in Salford, Massachusetts. She has no past to speak of, or at least none she is willing to reveal, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the townspeople, as does her choice to marry and start a family with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revived her. But Bertha is plucky, tenacious, and entrepreneurial, and the bowling alley she opens quickly becomes Salford’s most defining landmark — with Bertha its most notable resident.  When Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son, who arrives in Salford claiming he is heir apparent to Truitt Alleys. Soon it becomes clear that, even in her death, Bertha’s defining spirit and the implications of her obfuscations live on, infecting and affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills.  In a voice laced with insight and her signature sharp humor, Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unraveling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide.’

 

5. McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh 9780525522768
‘Salem, Massachusetts, 1851: McGlue is in the hold, still too drunk to be sure of name or situation or orientation — he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A-sail on the high seas of literary tradition, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard on a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.’

 

97815011346166. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster — and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.  Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.   Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.  Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will — lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.’

 

7. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy 9780062342461
It is an ordinary Tuesday morning in April when bored, lonely Charlie Fisher witnesses something incredible. Right before his eyes, in a busy square in Marseille, a group of pickpockets pulls off an amazing robbery. As the young bandits appear to melt into the crowd, Charlie realizes with a start that he himself was one of their marks.  Yet Charlie is less alarmed than intrigued. This is the most thrilling thing that’s happened to him since he came to France with his father, an American diplomat. So instead of reporting the thieves, Charlie defends one of their cannons, Amir, to the police, under one condition: he teach Charlie the tricks of the trade.  What starts off as a lesson on pinches, kicks, and chumps soon turns into an invitation for Charlie to join the secret world of the whiz mob, an international band of child thieves who trained at the mysterious School of Seven Bells. The whiz mob are independent and incredibly skilled and make their own way in the world — they are everything Charlie yearns to be. But what at first seemed like a (relatively) harmless new pastime draws him into a dangerous adventure with global stakes greater than he could have ever imagined.’

 

97803853526808. Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
‘An emotionally engaging, suspenseful new novel from the best-selling author, told in the voice of a renowned physicist: an exploration of female friendship, romantic love, and parenthood — bonds that show their power in surprising ways.  Helen Clapp’s breakthrough work on five-dimensional spacetime landed her a tenured professorship at MIT; her popular books explain physics in plain terms. Helen disdains notions of the supernatural in favor of rational thought and proven ideas. So it’s perhaps especially vexing for her when, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday in June, she gets a phone call from a friend who has just died.   That friend was Charlotte Boyce, Helen’s roommate at Harvard. The two women had once confided in each other about everything — in college, the unwanted advances Charlie received from a star literature professor; after graduation, Helen’s struggles as a young woman in science, Charlie’s as a black screenwriter in Hollywood, their shared challenges as parents. But as the years passed, Charlie became more elusive, and her calls came less and less often. And now she’s permanently, tragically gone.  As Helen is drawn back into Charlie’s orbit, and also into the web of feelings she once had for Neel Jonnal — a former college classmate now an acclaimed physicist on the verge of a Nobel Prize–winning discovery — she is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.’

 

9. Women Talking by Miriam Toews 9781635572582
Eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and over a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.  While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women–all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in–have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?  Told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of a community wrestling with its own foundational myths. For readers of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Women Talking examines the consequences of religious fundamentalism and communal isolation, and it celebrates the strength of women claiming their own power to decide.’

 

978152476313810. Becoming by Michelle Obama
‘In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America — the first African American to serve in that role — she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.  In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations — and whose story inspires us to do the same.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which books on the list have piqued your interest?  Are you one of those lucky people that has been to Powell’s already?

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‘Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings’ by Shirley Jackson ****

I am an enormous fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, and have been eager to read Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings since its publication in 2015.  For various reasons, I hadn’t managed to pick it up, but finally requested a copy from my local library.  The volume, which contains a great deal of unseen work of Jackson’s, from early stories to pieces of observation, has been edited by her son and daughter, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt.  The foreword to the book has been written by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin.

The blurb explains that Let Me Tell You ‘brings together a treasure trove of short stories – 81nzbak1holeach a miniature masterpiece of unease – with candid, fascinating essays, lectures, articles and drawings.’  In each of these pieces, ‘strange encounters occur, unwanted visitors arrive, places and objects take on lives of their own.’  They shift between the ‘ordinary and the uncanny, the comic and the horrific.’  Many of the stories collected here are from Jackson’s earliest writing period; they were written in a time of ‘impressive productivity as well as inspiring persistence.’

In her introduction, Franklin talks at length about the importance of Jackson’s posthumous collection.  She writes that the real highlight in Let Me Tell You is ‘especially for aspiring writers’, as Jackson shares ‘succinct, specific advice about creating fiction’ in both essays and transcripts of lectures which she gave.

Let Me Tell You has been split into several sections, which are often thematic.  Due to the emphasis which Jackson placed on writing about her family and her own life, many of the sections which are not purely made up of her short stories have overlapping content.

Let Me Tell You further demonstrates just how marvellous Jackson was at writing, and how she could so deftly create atmosphere and foreboding.  She had an innate ability to know just where to end a story, when all of the reader’s senses are heightened, and the tension which she is built is almost unbearable.  Jackson was also wonderful at suggestion, and of making her readers question often quite ordinary things.  As with her better known work, her stories contain clever and surprising twists.  At first, the situations which she crafts, and the lives which she lets us glimpse, appear ordinary; however, her stories are anything but. Even the shortest of her stories has been meticulously plotted, and strikes just the right balance.  A mixture of narrative perspectives has been used throughout, the characters are varied, and there is an unsettling quality to each.

Many of Jackson’s stories are steeped in the domestic, and the everyday: for instance, Mrs Spencer in ‘Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons’, who sets about preparing a party with no help whatsoever from her indifferent husband; and the wife of a professor talking to two of his young female students in ‘Still Life and Students’, one of whom has been having an affair with him.  We meet a man who walks around a park fabricating stories to tell to everyone he meets, and a woman who returns to her hometown after many years, and finds that nothing at all is the same, or is as she expected.  In this last story, ‘The Lie’, Jackson writes: ‘She felt wary of going too close to her old house, although she had been anxious to see it again; perhaps if she came within its reach it would capture her again, and never let her go this time.  Or perhaps it was only because she was embarrassed about being seen by people looking out their windows and telling one another, “There’s Joyce Richards come back.  Thought she was doing so well in the city?”‘

The accompanying illustrations, of which there are surprisingly few, are whimsical, and her essays witty and amusing.  Throughout, there is a sharpness to Jackson’s writing, perhaps more apparent in her short stories than her non-fiction pieces.  She was an extremely perceptive and intelligent author.

For a Jackson fan, Let Me Tell You is a real treat.  To those unfamiliar with her work, it could act as a great introduction to both her stories and style.  Jackson is quite unlike any other author I have ever come across, and it feels like a real privilege to be able to read these previously unpublished and forgotten pieces.  They are polished, written with the hand of a very talented author who already seems at the height of her craft.

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‘As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War’ by Emma Smith ***

I had read two of Emma Smith’s books – one written for adults (The Far Cry) and the other for children (No Way of Telling) – prior to picking up one of her memoirs.  Whilst As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War (2013) is not chronologically the first of her autobiographical works, it highly interested me, and was also available in my local library.

9781408835630Elspeth Hallsmith, as Emma Smith was born, moves with her family from Newquay in Cornwall to a Devonshire village named Crapstone.  Soon afterwards, her father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family are left to deal with the far-reaching consequences.  There is also the outbreak of the Second World War to contend with, and Smith’s crisis that she has no idea how to help the war effort.  Her elder sister joins the WAAF, and her brother enlists with the RAF after a period of flirting with pacifism.  At this point, Smith is only sixteen years old.  She goes to secretarial college, which ‘equips her for a job with MI5’, but which she finds stuffy and dull.  She ‘yearns for fresh air and joins the crew of a canal boat carrying much-needed cargoes on Britain’s waterways.’  After the war ends, and her freedom is returned to her, Smith travels to India, moves to Chelsea in London, falls in and out of love, and writes, of course.

Smith has used a structure of short vignettes, which follow particular episodes in her life – for instance, travelling to London to be a bridesmaid; making a best friend at school; horseriding; playing sports; dancing classes; being left behind when her sister grows up and begins to study at art college; her father’s bad temper and fits of rage; and the longing which she often has to be alone.  When her family move to Devon, Smith describes her delight at being able to attend a ‘proper school’ with her sister, which comes with a uniform requirement: ‘And the fictitious girls in such Angela Brazil novels as I succeeded in borrowing from Boots’ Lending Library – they too wore gymslips on the illustrations I pored over, and now I shall be able to feel I am the same as those heroines.’

Of her father’s breakdown, she reflects: ‘Almost the worst part of the anguish is the sense of there being nobody I can share it with.  I don’t know how much the Twins are troubled, or indeed if they are troubled at all, by the blight that has fallen on our family.  I don’t know what either of them is thinking.  Pam has become uncommunicative, barely exchanging a sentence with me; Jim has deserted to the group of his cheerful friends… and Harvey – Harvey is only six.  I put my arms around him, hugging him tightly for comfort – my comfort, not his.  He wriggles free.’

In Smith’s fiction, I have been struck by her narrative voice, and I imagined that I would be here too.  Whilst some of her writing is certainly lovely, and sometimes revealing, other parts are comparatively simplistic.  There was no real consistency here.  I did feel at times as though Smith was holding back somewhat.  There was a sense of unexpected detachment in As Green As Grass, and it did not always feel as though there was sufficient explanation as to the many characters which flit in and out of its pages.

I also found it a little strange that Smith had largely employed the present tense with which to set out her memories.  Whilst As Green As Grass is certainly readable, and Smith’s voice is warm and engaging, I must admit that I was a little put off by the use of present tense, which made the whole seem imagined and exaggerated rather than truthful.  Had Smith approached this memoir from the perspective of herself as an adult looking back, I’m almost certain that I would have enjoyed it more.

Smith’s work is highly praised, but does not appear to be widely read, which is a real shame.  Whilst there were elements of As Green As Grass that I wasn’t overly keen on, I found it interesting overall.  However, I must say that As Green As Grass was not quite the book which I had hoped it would be, and I was made to feel a little uncomfortable by some of the antiquated and racist language which she uses – ‘native-born Indians’, for example.

Whilst As Green As Grass is by no means amongst the best war memoirs which I have read, I did enjoy the recollections of Smith’s childhood and teenage years.  The parts on the canal boat, which I expected to really enjoy and get a lot out of, were quite repetitive.  To date, I have enjoyed her fiction more, but I’m still relatively keen to pick up another of her memoirs; I am particularly intrigued by her recollections of her Cornish childhood in Great Western Beach.

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‘Heart Berries’ by Terese Marie Mailhot ****

Roxane Gay has deemed Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries, ‘astounding’, and it ranks amongst the favourite books of both Kate Tempest and Emma Watson.  The New York Times calls it a ‘sledgehammer’ of a book, and believes that Mailhot has produces ‘a new model for the memoir.’  I had heard only praise for the book, Mailhot’s debut, and was therefore keen to pick up a copy myself.

9781526604408Heart Berries is described as ‘a powerful and poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest.  Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalised and facing a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.’  It sounded incredibly hard-hitting, and indeed, that is the overarching feeling which I have of the memoir.

As well as a form of therapy, Heart Berries was written as a ‘memorial’ for the author’s mother, as a way of reconciling with her estranged father, ‘and an elegy of how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.’  In the book, Mailhot finds herself able to discover ‘her own true voice, [and] seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, re-establishes her connection to her family, to her people and to her place in the world.’

Mailhot married for the first time when she was a teenager, and living on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia, Canada.  Her husband was violent, and took their young son away from her.  She writes of the way in which this led to her entire life collapsing: ‘We mined each other, and then my mother died.  I had to leave the reservation.’  Mailhot goes on to declare, ‘It’s too ugly – to speak this story…’, and then to ask, ‘How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I chase it every time?’

From the outset, Mailhot’s voice is authoritative and firm.  She begins by writing: ‘My story was maltreated.  The words were too wrong and ugly to speak.  I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle…  I was silenced by charity – like so many Indians.  I kept my hand out…  The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless.  We sometimes outrun ourselves.’  Some of the imagery which she goes on to create is nothing short of startling: ‘That’s when my nightmares came.  A spinning wheel, a white porcelain tooth, a snarling mouth, and lightning haunted me.  My mother told me they were visions.’

I found the memoir insightful, particularly when it came to explaining the place in the world of the First Nations community, and the author’s comparisons drawn between her people and the whites who live around them.  She also considers how the First Nations people have had to adapt to the modern world: ‘Our culture is based in the profundity things carry.  We’re always trying to see the world the way our ancestors did – we feel less of a relationship to the natural world.  There was a time when we dictated our beliefs and told ourselves what was real, or what was wrong or right.  There weren’t any abstractions.  We knew that our language came before the world.’  Her wider culture helped her to overcome, or at least to work through, some of the abuse which she suffered: ‘The only thing, the right thing – the thing that brought about my immunity – was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back.  The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.  I don’t feel the eyes of my grandmother anymore.’

So many things form an integral part of Mailhot’s story: poverty, anger, being viewed as ‘Other’, objectification, vulnerability, self-perception, motherhood, heartbreak, loss, and mental health, to name but a handful.  The structure which she has used throughout Heart Berries, which is made up of a series of loosely connecting essays, works well; it demonstrates that one’s memory is never exact, but can be warped and moulded.  The almost stream-of-consciousness prose, and turns of phrase, allow the reader to keep in mind just how troubled Mailhot was when writing.  She shows this in harsh, heartbreaking phrases, such as ‘I feel like my body is being drawn through a syringe.  Sometimes walking is hard.’  She comes across as brusque yet sincere, laying her grief bare upon the page: ‘I fit the criteria of an adult child of an alcoholic and the victim of sexual abuse.  I reiterate to the therapist several stories about my eldest brother’s abuse and my sister’s.  I often have felt, in proximity to their violations, that I mimic their chaos.’

Heart Berries is a slim memoir, filling just 130 pages.  There is so much to be found within its pages, however, and I feel that I got more from it than I have in memoirs three or four times its size.  Heart Berries presents a searing and honest portrait of a troubled life.  It is both brutal and bitter in what it portrays.  What is included here is presented as the prose which she wrote whilst receiving help for her diagnosed disorders, and is addressed to her husband, Casey: ‘I’m writing you from a behavioral health service building.  I agreed to commit myself under the condition they would let me write.’  There are many trigger warnings throughout Mailhot’s memoir, but she never goes into detail about the kinds of abuse which she suffered; rather, she has kept this part of her story hidden.  Heart Berries is a dark yet admirable book, which has a real sense of poignancy.

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